Forced Vaccinations

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Libertarian Pessimism Confronted

I. Introduction

A while ago (11/30/12), Bob Brenton in a letter asked me about compulsory vaccinations, and what I thought the libertarian position on them should be. My thought immediately went to Typhoid Mary an asymptomatic carrier of this dread disease. She was not a criminal, even though she spread typhoid to others. She lacked mens rea or a guilty conscience. She didn't even realize she was doing so; she didn't think she even had the disease since she was asymptomatic. But, she had to be stopped, by compulsion if necessary, because she was infecting innocent people. So when asked for my view on compulsory vaccinations against diseases of this sort, my answer was in the positive: they were justified.

I thought no more about this until a few weeks when Mr. Brenton asked me if he could publicly quote me on our conversation. I acquiesced, and this was the result, seen below as section II of this essay.

After this was blogged, I received numerous responses, most of them critical of the position I had staked out. In section III, I reproduce these criticisms, interspersed with my responses to them. (Some of them have been very slightly edited, to reduce repetition; as is my practice, all of these authors are anonymous.) It is my hope that thesis and antithesis, we may together approach a position on this challenging issue that is consonant with the libertarian theory as espoused by my friend, mentor, tutor, Murray N. Rothbard, whose example is my guide for vexing questions such as these. I conclude in section IV.

II. Reiteration

To Walter Block:

Recently, a grateful (non-paying) student of mine asked me about the libertarian position on vaccinations:

I have been devouring many of your lectures on youtube lately, and I came across one you gave at the Mises institute back in 2011 on the fallacies of public finance. At the 23 minute mark, you quoted Murray Rothbard with the idea being that it is absurd for 3 neighbors to force the 4th to play the cello (or do any other action). Do you apply the same line of reasoning to the vaccination debate, and how does it hold up to the ‘herd immunity’ argument – or does herd immunity fall into the un-measurable space between actual economy and optimal economy when looking at this external economy?

It seems that more and more seemingly educated people are willing to mandate (force) vaccinations on others because of this idea of herd immunity. Is this an exception to the rule (does herd immunity exist), and if so, why can’t we apply the same concepts to things like education?

Your grateful (non-paying) student,

Bob Brenton

To which I responded:

Dear Bob:

Thanks for your kind words. I'm not enough of a biologist to know the specifics about these sorts of things, so I'll just make assumptions.

Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom, or non aggression principle (NAP). Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.

On the other hand, if you don't get vaccinated, and if only you will be harmed, then it would be inappropriate for the law to force you to do this.

Now what this has got to do with taxes for education is way beyond me.

Anti thesis, and, hopefully, reconciliation

III. Letters

Letter 1.

You recently wrote: “Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom. Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.” How does un-action (on the part of the person refusing to avail himself of immunization) constitute a violation of the non-aggression principle? Suppose someone owns the only well in town and refuses to allow access. Is he a murderer if townspeople die of thirst? Thanks for posting a reply to the LRC blog if you believe it is worthwhile. Response to Letter 1.

There are no positive obligations in libertarian theory, at least the Rothbardian version thereof, to which I subscribe. Therefore, the person with the only well in town is not a murderer if he

refuses to sell any to the townspeople. This sounds horrid, since I adhere not only to libertarianism as a matter of deontology, or rights, but I also maintain that this freedom philosophy will also bring about good things, such as people not dying of thirst, when water is privatized. My point is that we are much more likely to perish from lack of water if the all-loving government is in charge of its supply, than if private enterprise is in control. I have published on this a bit, and I refer you to these publications of mine: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

You mention "un-action." And, spreading disease may be an "un-action" in the Austrian sense, since it is not purposeful, in the case of a contagious person. But in the libertarian world, this most certainly does constitute an action: killing innocent people.

Letter 2.

Firstly, thank you for your work and scholarship. I appreciate your thought and would like to inquire about something you recently posted.

Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom. Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.

In this hypothetical situation, who would be the arbiter of what disease is contagious? This could easily lead to a government-style monopoly if any vaccinations are to be forced upon people.

Is this still not in the realm of intent-policing; i.e., because you may infect me, I can force you to get vaccinated. Is not the responsibility of avoiding infection entirely in the hands of the individual? To me, it falls under choice of neighbours and such lifestyle decisions. Naturally, if the infected person were actually pursuing people with the intent to harm them, that falls under self-defense, but if the infected person is not doing any such thing – surely there can be no reason to apply force "for the greater good". Thank you again, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Response to Letter 2.

These are important complications you mention, worthy of further study. But, in my very limited remarks, I was assuming away, arguendo, all such difficulties. That is, I was assuming the simple case of a Typhoid Mary type situation, where the only way to stop the spreader of a fatal disease was through inoculations. I certainly agree with you that this conclusion is far less secure under the conditions you posit.

However, I must take issue with your contention that "if the infected person … is not actually pursuing people with the intent to harm them," then "surely there can be no reason to apply force u2018for the greater good.'" Well, then, yes, force is not justified for the "greater good," but it is, I contend, justified out of self defense. Typhoid Mary was not trying to hurt anyone else. She wasn't even aware she was doing to. But it was, I think, justified to compel her through violence if need be, to cease and desist.

Letter 3.

Love your work on Lew Rockwell but in this case I think you got it partially wrong as vaccinations, herd immunity and the like are complicated situations.

As a physician with strong libertarian leanings, I have been engaging the local health care system that employs me over its mandatory flu shot policy….. I believe that in all cases, mandatory vaccination policies violate the non aggression principle.

Our local media has been supportive of the policy…. I would argue that from a libertarian perspective one can NEVER make a case for mandatory vaccination of any sort.

In brief, you said, “Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom. Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.”

The scenario you give is true only in a hypothetical world, not the one in which we live. No vaccine is always 100% effective although some are close (but NOT flu vaccine) and not all patients are 100% contagious. Some get very mild cases.

Some questions that will illustrate how the burden of proof is always on the mandatory vaccine advocates: How can you know for certain who gave you the disease? What about proportionality? If you get a cold from someone and miss work, you have been very minimally harmed (technically a violation of the non aggression principle) as you may not get paid, but is that enough to jab a person against their will with a biological treatment that carries risk (very, very rarely fatal) to them and assuming a common cold vaccine existed? Even for severe, potentially fatal contagious diseases, was his giving it to you done on purpose? or simply the way things go? As, I said, how can you absolutely prove that HE DID IT.

If a vaccine was 100% effective, who cares if he was vaccinated or not – you could choose to take it and be 100% protected. But what if it is 100% effective but kills 10% of the patients who take it? Would you take it? If not, why is the other guy to blame for your decision should you catch the disease, presumably from him? He may have not taken it for the same reason you decided not to. What if the disease in question killed 95% of victims? You may then say 10% death rate from vaccine does not sound so bad. But, are there alternatives? How about self-isolation or quarantine as the case may be? or forced isolation by the authorities for the obstinate who is walking around thereby exposing others to a deadly disease? If the disease in question were that bad, only an insane person would not take the vaccine and maybe he is insane. In any case, simply isolating him would take care of the problem. If the hypothetical disease were so bad that no one would attend to him in isolation, he might starve to death. He may consider this possibility and change his mind. May be not.

I think the point has been made. There are endless variables to be considered but none of them absolutely require “libertarian law” to force a vaccine on anyone. Thanks so much for the opportunity to correspond with you.

Response to Letter 3.

There are continuums all over the place, and no political philosophy, not even libertarianism, can fully answer them. Take statutory rape. We know that a five year old girl, no matter how agreeable, cannot give consent to sex; if you go to bed with such a child, you are guilty of statutory rape, in my view. On the other hand, a 25 year old woman can give consent; you commit no crime if you have voluntary intercourse with her. But what about a girl of 15? 14? 16? There is no right answer to this question. It depends upon context, culture, the hypothetical "reasonable" man.

Similarly, how far does A's fist have to be from B's nose before the latter is justified in taking violent defensive action against the former? One inch? One foot? One yard? One hundred yards? It depends, again, on context, culture, the view of the "reasonable" man. If the context is a classroom demonstration, then very close; if in a dark alley, not at all so close. All of your counter examples (common cold, only 10% effective, etc.) to my thesis are of this type. None of them, therefore, undermine my view, I think. But you make a very good point when you say "The scenario you give is true only in a hypothetical world, not the one in which we live." Correct. My analysis sweeps away all real world (continuum) scenarios, in an attempt to make a controversial point: it is justified to stop the Typhoid Marys of the world, even though they lack mens rea. For further reading on continuums, you might look at this or this.

Letter 4.

In your analysis of mandatory vaccinations you state:

“Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom. Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.”

I believe this is incorrect because the danger to you is not clear and present which is the requirement for defensive violence. Even if I contract a contagious deadly disease if I don’t come in contact with you or anyone I still haven’t hurt anyone but myself. I agree that if I purposely or even accidentally came into contact with you or anyone then they got sick and died I would be a murderer. If the disease didn’t kill me then I should be tried as a murderer under libertarian justice or if I did die from the disease then my estate would be liable for damages against the family of the victim given that they could prove my culpability. However that fact shouldn’t allow anyone to forcibly immunize me from the disease which is a clear and present danger to my right of self ownership.

The distinction is small but I think important because without it we leave the door open to all kinds of “preventative” violence which I’m sure you agree is not compatible with libertarian justice. Thank you for taking the time to read my idea. I would be happy to discuss your thoughts on the matter further at your convenience.

Response to Letter 4.

The non aggression principle of libertarianism prohibits not only the initiation of aggression against non aggressors, but also the threat thereof. It seems to me that if A is contagious with a deadly disease he constitutes a threat to B, C, D, etc. Given that, it would be justified for the latter, the community, to compel him by force if need be, to cease and desist.

Letter 5.

It’s always good to read what you have to say, and your comments on vaccinations were appropriate.

But even more appropriate, I think, is that if someone believes that a vaccine will help them avoid some dreaded disease, then let them go at it.

The point here is if that person has been vaccinated, and if the vaccine actually works as stated, then how can my being infected harm them?

After all, they are vaccinated, and the vaccine works as stated, so why do they need me to be vaccinated too, i.e., how will that help them?

Response to Letter 5.

Ah but suppose the Typhoid Mary refuses to be vaccinated; I argue she must be compelled to do so. Also, it is possible that the vaccination will not work for all possible victims. Suppose they are too sick to be vaccinated. I think it is the responsibility of the disease carrier to stop infecting other people, not the responsibility of possible victims to protect themselves. This point you make reminds me of Ronald Coase's famous article.

In this article, Coase was asking, is it the responsibility of the cattleman to build a fence to keep his cows from trespassing, or is this the responsibility of the farmer, to protect his hay crop from marauding cows. Coase's answer was, Whichever way maximizes overall wealth. This is exactly the point you are making: who's responsibility is it to get inoculated: the carrier of the disease, or the possible uninoculated victim. You place the responsibility on the latter. Coase's answer depends upon an empirical examination of costs.

I think that the best refutation of Coase on this point was penned by Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard, Mr. Libertarian, would hold the rancher responsible. I see the Typhoid Mary in the role of the rancher.

Letter 6. I don’t find your answer satisfactory. Property rights, property rights. Always property rights. As you yourself have stated many times (usually with the example of the watch thief), the NAP requires clearly defined property rights in order to determine who is the aggressor. You have no right to force me to get inoculated if I restrain myself to my own property and the property of others who grant access to the non-inoculated. If inoculation is something people value, they can make it a condition to access to their property. Gaining access by lying about one’s un-inoculated state would be fraud and trespassing. Those who value inoculation do not have the right to force property owners to require inoculation. If I own a store, and I’m not convinced by the science regarding inoculation, I don’t have to require inoculation of my customers for them to gain access to my store. Nor am I obligated to disclose this. I’m only prevented from fraud. The burden lies on those who value inoculation to seek information. “Store owner, do you require inoculation?” If the answer given is a lie, then that’s fraud. If they say “Nope”, then the pro-inoculation person can boycott but has no recourse to force the store owner. Any attempt to do so WOULD be a violation of the NAP. I’m skimming here, but I don’t see any place for forced inoculation in a libertarian society. There are simply property rights, which trespassing is a violation of. Of course, there will be severe social pressure towards inoculation, if that truly has benefit, and as pointed out, the un-inoculated may quickly find themselves with very limited options to where they can go without trespassing. But force inoculations per se are anathema to the NAP. Would welcome counter arguments if I’m wrong.

Response to Letter 6.

I agree with you. If the disease carrier quarantines herself to her own property, we may not force her to become inoculated. But this would have to be a very serious quarantine. Typhoid Mary would not only have to stay on her own property; she would have to insure that the disease cannot be carried by air to others. Practically speaking, she could make no such guarantee. So, I think that strict adherence to the NAP would justify compelling her to stop what is in effect her aggression.

Letter 7.

But it’s all probabilistic: Unvaccinated, you may get the disease and, if you get the disease, you may infect me. Must you be vaccinated?

What if you simply infect me with a common cold? Is that actionable?

What about infections spread where the host has no idea he is ill?

Isn’t it the case that, based on the human condition, no one can homestead infection-free space in the public realm? And even on private property, a property owner can only conditionally homestead infection-free zones (such as an excluded area where air is filtered and a “no admittance” sign is displayed)?

Now, a property owner could allow admittance only if the newcomer has a document of health and/or vaccination. But that would not homestead the property as an airborne-virus-free zone. Nor would it protect the property owner from casual spreading of disease (assuming the carrier is not proactively spreading a virus, etc.).

Response to Letter 7.

I won't here answer your very good point about the common cold, because I did so, above, under the rubric of continuums. In any case, there is now no inoculation for the common cold. You also make an excellent point about everything being probabilistic. But this, too, falls under that category: some things are more probable, other things are less so, where do you draw the line? But in my answer I was attempting to obviate this point. I was assuming, arguendo, that there was no doubt that the Typhoid Mary would indeed spread this dread disease. There is a small chance that any airplane may crash and kill and innocent person. Should we ban all air travel? No, of course not, planes do not constitute a threat. There is also a small probability that anyone with a fist may punch an innocent person. Again, we do not ban hands, which can be made into fists; they are not per se threats. But a disease carrying person does pose a threat to all others.

Letter 8.

Maybe your non-paying student, Bob Brenton, has a point. Perhaps a person’s lack of education results in socialism causing irreparable harm to their fellow citizens. Nah. There are lots educated socialists. Never mind :).

Response to Letter 8.

I like this idea! I love it. We'll put all socialists in jail, since they pose a threat to the rest of us. Great. Well, fun. But on a more serious note, mere thinking of evil (socialistic) thoughts really can't constitute a crime, no matter how tempting it is to think so. (I am now discussing coercive socialism, not voluntary varieties, such as the commune or kibbutz, monastery, etc.) If thoughts were actionable, most of us would be in jail.

Letter 9.

I am very much a fan of yours, so this correspondence comes from a friend. I disagree with your recent vaccine reply. Here is why:

Let us propose that vaccines are effective If vaccines are effective, then it matters not to the vaccinated if others are also vaccinated. If I have German Measles, and you have been vaccinated against German Measles, then you have nothing to fear from me. Right? Perhaps I have misinterpreted your reply?

I happen to believe vaccines are one of the great inventions of the 20th century. I prefer to live in a world without polio. Some will prefer to not be vaccinated. Those people pose no threat to me.

Response to Letter 9.

In my view, it is incumbent on the person who violates the NAP, whether intentionally or not in the case of disease spreaders, to cease and desist. It is not a requirement of possible victims to defend themselves, with inoculations. Yes, the rape victims in India should get a pistol and defend themselves. That would radically reduce the incidence of rape. But, under libertarian law, at least as I understand it, this is not a requirement for these women. Rather, the requirement is that men do not engage in the despicable act of rape. I think there is a strong albeit imperfect analogy between rape and disease spreading. Of course, no one commits rape by accident. But the law should require the aggressor, not the victim, to change behavior. Similarly, the law should require the Typhoid Mary to stop spreading this disease, even inadvertently; it should not require the rest of us to take defensive action. People who do not get a polio vaccination do not pose a threat to most of us; but what about those who are too sick to take this vaccination. Do not those who are healthy enough to get this vaccination pose a threat to those who cannot. (I am writing here, arguendo, on the assumption that the Salk vaccine always prevents polio.)

Letter 10.

The story of Typhoid Mary, who was isolated in jail after she had infected and killed several people, yet still refused to have her infected gallbladder removed, or stop working in public, is a real life example of how to apply this principle.

Response to Letter 10.

Yes, yes, I agree. Thanks for your support. So far, you are the only respondent on this who actually agrees with me. I suppose this supports the oft made claim that if you ask 10 libertarians a hard question, you'll get 11 different answers.

Letter 11.

Seeing as there are risks to being vaccinated, it seems like one of your positions citing the non-aggression axiom is instead more like a utilitarian argument. The greater good of the herd for the minimal sacrifice of the individual. I also think that immersing yourself in a sea of risk by exposing yourself to the population and knowing that viruses are out there and expecting others to protect you is really the bad behavior, either stupid or dishonest.

Aside from those objections, I read a great transcript on LRC from an interview that Dr. Mercola conducted about immunizations and the difference in herd immunities developed naturally (strong) and those by vaccinations (weak). And lastly, the education system supported by taxes is the primary means by which children are forced to get inoculated.

Response to Letter 11.

I don't think I am talking about individuals versus groups. Rather, individuals versus individuals. Or, for that matter, groups versus groups. People, whether singular or plural, who violate the NAP, whether purposefully, or by accident, or without even knowing they are doing so, should be stopped. All of them. Individuals or groups of individuals. Is not Typhoid Mary a rights violator? I am sure she is. I don't reject all utilitarian arguments. I believe that the NAP is, broadly speaking, in conformity with human wealth and happiness. Certainly, I support your opposition to public schools.

Letter 12.

“Assume that if you don't get a vaccination, you'll contract a dreadful disease and then become contagious. You'll infect me and I'll die. Then, I think, the libertarian law would force you to become inoculated, otherwise you would be violating the non aggression axiom. Your refusal to get vaccinated makes you, in effect, a murderer.”

Really? That’s quite an assumption. Looks like competing violations of the non-aggression axiom, and, a slippery slope.

I just looked up “Typhoid Mary” on Wikipedia. A more extreme series of events since she was without symptoms and refused to believe she was spreading disease.

Response to Letter 12.

I don't believe in "competing violations" or "competing rights." If there are two rights that appear to be in conflict, one of them is necessarily not a right. Rights do not, cannot, conflict. There would appear to be a rights conflict here. One of them is the "right" of Typhoid Mary to conduct her life as she wishes, going here and there, etc. The other of them is the right of the rest of us, or other individuals, to not die of this horrid disease. But Typhoid Mary is killing innocent people as surely as if she were shooting them. She has no right at all to spread her disease. The germs that she lets loose onto other people are akin to firing bullets at other people. I cannot acquiesce in the notion that her rights are being violated by forcibly (if need be) stopping her from engaging in this sort of (unintentional, non purposeful) murder.

Letter 13. It seems to me that if I don’t get vaccinated and therefore acquire a contagious disease with which I infect you, then you have acquired the disease because you did not get vaccinated either. If you don’t want to acquire the disease, then get vaccinated, but don’t blame me for infecting you if you have been as “negligent” (according to our masters in government) as I. You can protect yourself with the vaccination regardless if I am vaccinated or not. I can’t be blamed for spreading disease if another person acquires that disease from me if he was capable of protecting himself in the same way that I was (if you believe our government masters), but “negligently” refused to be.

Response to Letter 13.

I maintain that it is not the responsibility of victims to ward off invasions, although certainly I support it. Rather, in my view of libertarianism, it is a rights violation for perpetrators to unleash physical damage on victims, even if the latter could have countered the attack. A shoots bullets at all sorts of people, B, C, D. Assume that armor was effective in stopping such shootings. According to me, A should cease and desist. According to your view, A should continue his pillage, and B, C, D, etc., should don this armor. I can't see my way clear to thinking that your view comports with libertarian theory, as does mine.

IV. Conclusion

Well, that's it. I picked what I thought were the dozen best letters (well, a baker's dozen) on this issue. I thank all correspondents, and hope and trust the ones I could not answer will forgive me. I have only so much time at my disposal. I can't believe that we have together "nailed" this challenging issue. But I hope and trust that this discussion will shed some light on it. I want to end by saying that this venue is really a magnificent one, and what makes it so special are the quantity and especially quality of the responses we contributors to it get from readers, such as in this case. I doubt if there is a single blog in the entire world that attracts such thoughtful Austro libertarians as this one.